After four years, Gaza remains home

Somehow, even after all it had been through, Gaza was much as I remembered it.

If my first visit home to Gaza after more than four years was a drama, seeing my mother would have been its climax. It would have been the inevitable conclusion that every thread in the story leads to. And it was. For days I had been thinking about when I would see her. There is something about mothers, something heavenly that makes them the centre of the universe. There is something about home that makes me feel the same way.

I left Gaza in the spring of 2006. Since then, the Gaza Strip has witnessed some of the darkest moments in its history: an intra-Palestinian feud in 2007 that had killed dozens and instilled a sense of fear and shame in every Palestinian, and a traumatic Israeli assault in late 2008 that killed more than 1,000 civilians and obliterated thousands of government buildings and homes. The three-year blockade had, during its harshest periods, deprived people of the most essential items. A cousin who works at Shifa Hospital told me that the hospitals even lacked sufficient bandages.

But, somehow, even after all it had been through, Gaza was much as I remembered it. My trip home began more than 30 hours before I saw the "Welcome to Palestine" sign at the Rafah crossing, on the border with Egypt. In addition to a three-hour flight from Dubai, I was held up by Egyptian security for 20 hours at the Cairo airport, then came a seven-hour bus trip to the border. The ordeal made the two-hour border crossing feel short.

I was prepared for a long trip, but since I had a transit visa for Egypt, my plan was to stay with a friend for a few hours before taking an early morning taxi to the border. That would have gotten me to Gaza at least five hours earlier than I did, that is if I had not been effectively detained by Egypt's security services. When I showed the Egyptian intelligence officer my transit visa, which ostensibly gave me the right to stay in Egypt for a few days, he said it was useless. Then, I was asked to make my last phone call before I handed my phone, computer and camera to police officers.

Next to the security office was a corridor with three rooms. Each of the rooms had four bunk-beds. At first, there were about 10 people in these rooms, but by early morning we were nearly 50 - men, women, children and toddlers. We exchanged stories and longed for the time when we could access our own country directly. There was writing on the beds and the walls, one of them reading: "The detained Abu Wasim"; another, "Oh night of injustice, clear away. Oh pains of wounds heal." Some wrote that they had spent weeks in this tiny room.

Egypt's desire to maintain border security by controlling the flow of Palestinians is understandable. However, the only way for most Gazans to leave or return home is through Egypt. It is easier for me to travel to other countries than it is to go home. I remember that it took only a few minutes to pass through immigration at Kuala Lumpur. I didn't even have to apply for a visa in advance. Every Palestinian who wishes to enter Gaza must obtain a security clearance from the Egyptian security services. If this clearance is applied for through embassies and consulates, it can take weeks. But through a travel agent for a fee of anything between $300 and $1,000 (Dh1,100 and Dh3,670), the clearance can be obtained within a few days.

The Egyptian government needs to come up with a transparent system that gives all the Palestinians the right to enter their own country. As I entered Gaza, I was surprised to see that it still retained much of the vibrancy I remembered. The markets were busy and full of fresh and colourful produce; vendors on donkey carts roamed through the neighbourhood selling their homegrown watermelons for the equivalent of Dh10; young men quietly puffed on shishas in cafes across the city; thousands swam in the Mediterranean despite the pollution from untreated sewage. When I went for a barbeque on the beach with my cousins, none of them noticed the vile smell. They had grown used to it.

Every day, the electricity shuts down for as long as eight hours. People have been forced to get used to living without power for much of the day. The wounds of war are evident. Landmarks were wiped out. One building that was entirely erased during the Israeli aerial blitz was the Governor's Palace, a colonial building that was built during the first half of the last century to house the British governor. It used to sit just a few blocks away from my house.

One of my sisters had her home partially destroyed by an Israeli tank shell. Luckily, she, her husband and one-year-old son had rushed to a safer neighbourhood, to escape the advancing Israeli troops. Her entire bedroom was left charred, destroying her wedding albums and other tokens of better times. But when I visited her, her apartment was back to normal. A brand new beechwood bedroom set was in place, and the set for the children was scheduled for delivery the next day.

Her 10-month old daughter can see no traces of the destruction, which happened while she was still in her mother's womb. Like her mother's apartment, the wounds of war had been bandaged and were healing. I held her, with the pacifier in her mouth, and stood next to the window, enjoying a fresh breeze. I looked at her and her eyes were fixed on the orange orchard across the road. She was quiet. Her eyes were sparkling and dreamy.

She had the face of home. @Email:mhabboush@thenational.ae